Which, of course, means that several generations of Central New York moviegoers have never enjoyed the drive-in experience. Everyone from the young families that needed an inexpensive night out with their pajama-clad kids, to makeout artists in schmecken mode while parked in the back row’s heavy petting zoo (and if the Chevy Monza was rockin’, you’d best not come a-knockin’), have been out of luck for nearly a quarter-century.
The only option left nowadays is to gas up and cruise the highways to visit the drive-ins that are still in business—and yet are located far outside the city limits. This third annual installment of the Syracuse New Times’ drive-in report examines the outdoor bijou at yet another crossroads, and the direction some may follow could threaten to end one of the most quintessentially American pastimes.
While the Aug. 18, 2010, article “Drivin’ to the Drive-In” was more of a nostalgic ode to these summertime cinemas, the July 13, 2011, sequel, “Ozoner Update,” detected troubles on the horizon, with owners either in the process of selling their properties or else contemplating the expensive projection booth transition from dependable 35mm prints to the uncertainties presented by the digital download era. With the digital revolution featuring an estimated per-screen price tag of $70,000, and a typical drive-in season lasting maybe six months, it’s no wonder that ozoner owners are experiencing agita.
Finger Lakes Drive-In
One recent surprise concerns the Finger Lakes Drive-In (252-3969; fingerlakesdrivein.com) in the town of Aurelius, about 30-plus miles from Syracuse on Routes 5 and 20 (Clark Street Road), just a few miles past Auburn’s Fingerlakes Mall. Kevin Mullin, only the third owner of the venue in its 65-year history, sold the drive-in last December to a Finger Lakes businessman who at press time wishes to remain anonymous. (Paul Field, who turned 99 recently, built the place in 1947, then the late Frank Feocco had it from 1986 to 1995.)
Mullin is also in the process of selling his summer home, which is adjacent to the drive-in parcel. After all, he’ll no longer need a crash pad since he actually lives and works in another state: Since 2003 Mullin has been a Republican state senator for Vermont’s three-seat 22nd District representing Rutland County.
The new owner has put the kibosh on daily screenings, a quizzical move given this summer’s ideal weather, and triple bills are likewise a remnant of the past. Now open Fridays through Sundays, the drive-in has benefited from a white paint job on its 35-by-70 foot screen, with a new FM transmitter (and a new frequency at 107.1) to augment the aural sensations, although old-school in-car speakers are available at most posts.
The snack bar also offers car-side delivery of its traditional menu of burgers, crinkle-cut fries and wieners, with occasional specials such as Buffalo chicken wings. An express line of quick goodies including popcorn, chips and soda is open on Fridays and Saturdays on the stand’s left side, while those in the mood for grilled items are asked to use the right side’s entrance.
Admission to the Finger Lakes Drive-In is still $7.50 for ages 12 and up, $3 for ages 5 to 11, and free for kids younger than 4. On Saturday, July 21, the drive-in hopes to lure Syracuse Nationals fans and their wild wheels for the annual Classic Car Night, with drivers receiving free popcorn. And new baseball caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the drive-in’s logo are available for $15 apiece.
Silver Lake Drive-In
Speaking of lakes, the Silver Lake Twin Drive-In, located far afield in Wyoming County ((585) 237-3372; charcoalcorral.com), made the digital move for both of its screens earlier this season. According to owner Rick Stefanon, his brand-new Barco 32B (“the biggest one they make in the industry”) offers an image that’s “clear, sharp, bright. It’s really a nice difference.” And since 35mm flicks always looked pretty good on his canvasses, that’s saying something.
The transition had some heartbreak, however. “It was very sad to take down the film projectors and I’ll tell you why,” Stefanon says. “The motor that drove all the gears for the projector was put in in 1949 and it was runnin’ as good in 2012 as it was in 1949. Actually, one 35mm projector is still up in screen 2 so people can notice the difference between them. We’ll probably end up taking it out in the fall.” Incidentally, the front screen measures 56-by-95 feet, and the back is 36-by-70 feet, both with 235-foot projector throws.
And while it’s more economically feasible for Stefanon to make the switch because of the dining business he also owns next to the drive-in, he still feels the pain for other ozoners. “A lot of drive-ins have had supportive families running the business throughout generations and now with the big digital investment there’s not enough money and it’s just not worth it. It’s sad for these people who have poured their heart and soul and life into it.”
More than likely, Stefanon’s the guy you’ll see constantly tooling around on a golf cart from one side of the property to the other to ensure that everything’s running just fine. That’s understandable since the entertainment destination includes not only new movies but also miniature golf, stage activities and several restaurants. It’s about a two-hour drive from Syracuse to Wyoming County’s town of Perry, about 12 miles away from the SUNY Geneseo campus—and worth the trip.
Stefanon says that the ozoner—which was originally a single-screen business back in 1966 when Rick’s dad Jake Stefanon was in charge—is responsible for everything, claiming that “the drive-in enabled most of the financing from day one of the family entertainment center.” Yet some Perry locals probably refer to the Silver Lake by its other business: the Charcoal Corral food complex, which began as a hot dog stand in 1977 and now celebrates its 35th year (you can also bring food into the drive-in).
There’s also an outdoor stage that features country line dancing on Mondays, live bands on Tuesdays, karaoke on Wednesdays, cruise nights on Thursdays (which on June 21 attracted more than 500 classic models, with a “super cruise” slated for Thursday, July 19) and more family-oriented fun throughout the weekend. One tradition is known as “shoot the bear,” in which a stuffed animal is launched with an air cannon, and Stefanon can’t even remember how that shtick got started. “It’s been goin’ on forever and we don’t know how the bear became our mascot. But we decided to try to get the audience involved a little more and that’s where shooting the bear came in.”
Tickets for the drive-in are still at last year’s prices: $7 for adults, $3 for ages 4 to 10, and free for younger than 3.
Things have been somewhat status quo at the Midway Drive-In (342-9585; midwaydrivein.com), so named because it’s sandwiched midway between Fulton and Oswego on Route 48 in the town of Minetto. But longtime owner John Nagelschmidt, who first worked behind the concession stand as a teenager in 1961, believes that changes are inevitable. Last November during a Virginia confab alongside many of the nation’s drive-in owners, with the digital dilemma naturally at the top of the agenda, Nagelschmidt reports the mantra that went down: “Convert soon or close your gates.”
He envisions that the projection booth of the 64-year-old outdoor venue will have to undergo a major reconfiguration in order to squeeze in the digital player’s big black box. Nagelschmidt has already felt the effects of this transition, however. Last year’s closure of the state’s film depots meant that the 35mm prints were being shipped back to the West Coast, which made it more difficult to book his popular triple bills of recent second-run product.
Of course, putting off the digital switch also means delaying the financial headache that accompanies the new equipment. Nagelschmidt guesstimates a tally in the neighborhood of $80,000 to $100,000 for the project, and brother, is that a sore subject: “The end result is definitely a brighter, clearer image, but it’s not film! It’s a friggin’ computer, and a very expensive one at that. My biggest fear with the digital format is that the one machine goes down for some minor or major problem and we lose the show, with a lot full of disenchanted patrons for the night or even the weekend while we wait for the tech to show up and make repairs. I’ve been at the Midway for 51 years and I don’t recall ever losing a show because of equipment failure; with a handful of tools, a little ingenuity and two 35mm projectors, the show goes on. My successes with computers over the years pale in comparison.”
Nor does Nagelschmidt believe that the digital upgrade will ever pay for itself over the long haul. “But without the conversion at the drive-in,” he laments, “it would be the equivalent of having a gigunda flat-screen TV in your home with no broadcast signal or Blu-rays to use it. Still, it’s do or die, as 35mm films are going the way of 8-tracks, 45-rpm singles and super-8 projectors. The film studios will save a bundle because the cost of distributing their product, about $1,000-plus per movie print, now becomes pocket change for their erasable, reusable hard drives. I’m curious how we’re going to refer to the film studios next year when there is no film!”
Nagelschmidt does point out a silver lining or two regarding his silver-screen biz. When he finalizes the conversion, which could happen before season’s end, he’s looking forward to having an air-conditioned booth, and he will no longer have to stay until dawn to break down the films from their bigger spliced reels for shipment, as the sweat routinely dripped off his chin. “But it’s like losing a longtime friend,” he says. “Those projectors and I have been together every summer night for the last 51 years.”
As Midway seasons go, the 2012 edition began on April 13, its earliest opener in many years; even in snowy Minetto, a mild winter is a mild winter. The spring debut also provided a shakedown cruise for the newbies behind the snack counter, with most of the menu items back for an encore. The Midway’s ticket prices remain at $7 for adults, $2 for kids ages 7 to 11, and free for ages 6 and younger.